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Root, Root, Root for the Milken Money

September 10, 1995|SCOTT HARRIS

One of the things we try to do here is raise moral sensitivity.

--Bruce Powell, principal of Milken Community High School

The moral question for today is: Is it really appropriate for a school, particularly a religious school, to be named after the greatest white-collar criminal of our time?

At Stephen S. Wise Temple, there are five million reasons why the answer is, hey, sounds good to us. Those, of course, would be the $5 million donated by the Milken Family Foundation to the temple's secondary school, now known as Milken Community High School.

So now, as Times Religion Writer John Dart reported Saturday, the students at the temple's newly named high school on Mulholland Drive are joking whether to change their sports nickname, the Wildcats, to either the Cookies or the Honey.

Milken Cookies. Milken Honey. Pretty cute, huh?

But for some reason, I hear Milken not as a homonym for milk'n', but for milkin'. So allow me to suggest another nickname.

The Money.

It's more than appropriate. In fact, if I do say so myself, it's perfect.

Think about it. This is no mere pun. There are plenty of reasons to root, root, root for the Milken Money.

First of all, there's a lot of it, and the Milken family gives it to all kinds of charities. Go, Money, go! Second, the name would inspire awe in opponents. Michael Milken, the '80s junk bond king who was convicted in an insider trading scandal, made so much of the stuff that he paid $600 million in fines and penalties and still came home from prison worth something like a half-billion. Third, it's unique, and the merchandising potential should never be underestimated. (How about baseball caps bearing the $$$ logo?)

But these reasons pale next to the most important, especially to the Milkens. A proud cheer for the Milken Money would help redeem that tarnished family name. Why? Because if you really want the world to see Michael Milken as a fine role model, you need to assert--proudly, vehemently, fiercely--that he earned every red cent, fair and square. So what better way to celebrate Michael Milken than to celebrate his wealth?

I can almost hear the cheerleaders:

Give me an M, give me an O, give me an N . . .

By now I suspect that Bruce Powell, principal of Milken High, may not appreciate my contribution to the campus debate. For one thing, as he told John Dart, "We are not naming the school after a convicted felon."

By this I think he meant the school--the largest non-Orthodox Jewish school in the country--is being named for the Milken family, not Michael alone.

Then again, perhaps Powell meant something else, for he also told Dart that he is convinced that Michael Milken was "tried and convicted in the press by innuendo and a politically ambitious prosecutor." Powell hailed a book published this year--"Payback," by Daniel Fischel--as setting the Milken record straight. If the principal believes Michael Milken to be an utterly innocent fellow, a victim of persecution, then he should get with the Money spirit.

All this revisionism made me visit the library for a refresher on Milken's crimes. Unlike S & L executive Charles Keating, who directly ruined so many investors with his shady deals, Milken's impact was more nebulous. How is it that Milken faced 98 charges but wound up pleading guilty to six concerning securities, mail, wire and tax fraud, conspiracy, market manipulation and maintaining false records? Here's how financial columnist Allan Sloan, now with Newsweek, summed up the case's resolution in March, 1992:

"Milken copped to six relatively minor felonies in his plea-bargain deal with the government. . . . Those six acts cost victims a total of about $300,000, a relatively trivial sum that Milken apologists cite as showing the triviality of his offenses.

"But Milken and his lawyers agreed to these six charges precisely because they involved little money, exposing him to only a small amount of civil liability by the victims of his admitted crimes. Do you really believe that Milken read all 98 counts, realized that he had committed six crimes and was so overwhelmed with remorse that he pleaded guilty to them? Give me a break."

Ah, the art of the deal. Sloan also notes that the $500 million Milken paid to settle a lawsuit pressed by federal banking regulators was but a fraction of the $5 billion to $6 billion that Milken's activities were estimated to have cost U.S. taxpayers.

Hmmm. The school might want to stick with Wildcats after all.

Scott Harris' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.

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